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Judgments Sweetened: Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern Jewish Culture

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The century 1550-1650 has been called "the Age of the Demoniac" by European historians who have analyzed the prominent role played by the possessed in numerous witch-trials during this period, as well as the propagandistic uses of demonic possession in the era of the Counter-Reformation. Noting that accounts of demonic possession among Jews reappear in Jewish sources after an absence of more than a millennium precisely in this period (c. 1540), J. H. Chajes here assesses the nature of the relationship, if any, between the Christian phenomenon and its Jewish analogue. Chajes identifies many elements common to the Jewish and Christian constructions of the phenomenon and its treatment (exorcism). Many of these, however, are near universals as far as spirit possession is concerned; the emphasis in the Jewish construction of possession on reincarnation and the locus of the Jewish "proliferation" in Ottoman Galilee further complicates the positing of direct Christian influence upon the Jewish developments. Instead, Chajes suggests that the Jewish proliferation of spirit possession arose for reasons analogous to those which fueled the proliferation in Christian Europe. These include inter-religious rivalry, efforts to reform the religiosity of the masses, and efforts to enhance and strengthen clerical authority. Moreover, the idiom of possession served to express the frustrated sexuality of the victims (nearly all female), as well as the stresses associated with life in pietistic religious environments.

Affiliations: 1: Yale University

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